Mediapart: Meet the Upstart Journalists Shaking Up French Politics

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Bertrand Langlois / REUTERS

French President Francois Hollande arrives to deliver a speech at the Moroccan Parliament in Rabat April 4, 2013.

While President François Hollande is reeling from revelations that his former tax-enforcement minister (no less) hid fortunes of money in offshore bank accounts, the scandal has brought a sense of satisfaction in at least one corner of Paris: the offices of a small, five-year-old news site called Mediapart.

Beginning last December, Mediapart’s reporters had published articles about the tall, dapper Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac, saying that he had evaded taxes on his considerable earnings from years as a plastic surgeon. The explosive details emerged just as Hollande was vowing to crack down on tax cheats — the portfolio assigned to Cahuzac — and fuming against actor Gérard Depardieu for leaving high-tax France. Cahuzac fiercely denied Mediapart’s allegations, including to Hollande. In a speech that has come back to haunt him, the Budget Minister also told the French Parliament he had “not now, not ever” hidden funds abroad. Shortly after, Mediapart posted an audiotape conversation from 2000, in which Cahuzac can be heard worrying that his Swiss bank account might be revealed. Last month he resigned from his ministerial job on Hollande’s orders, and on Tuesday — thanks to Mediapart — he was forced to admit that he still had about $780,000 stashed in Swiss and Singaporean accounts.

(MORE: Swiss Account of Ex-Minister Further Darkens Hollande’s Political Fortunes)

As bad as the scandal has been for French leaders, so it has been spectacularly good for Mediapart — for which it is just the most recent scoop. The small, feisty site has beaten the odds by breaking some of the biggest scandals of the decade in France, on a shoestring budget and against widespread skepticism from the much richer French newspapers. In its five-year existence, the site has published details of alleged campaign-finance abuse by Nicolas Sarkozy, for which the former President is now under formal investigation by police. Mediapart also broke the news of Sarkozy’s links to a Karachi arms deal; the intervention of IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde in the legal settlement of a French businessman Bernard Tapie; and documents suggesting that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi might have sought to finance Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign.

This week’s revelations have not only stung politicians but also the traditional French media. As Mediapart hammered away at the Cahuzac story for months, news outlets questioned whether the information was true, and on occasion dismissed it as trivial. “Not only did Cahuzac lie but we were also belittled by our colleagues, who told us this was nonsense,” Mediapart co-founder Laurent Mauduit told TIME on Friday. “We have won a battle — a battle of our convictions.”

The battle has been hard fought over the years. When Mediapart broke Sarkozy’s campaign-finance scandal in 2010 — just two years after the site began — its staff was vilified by politicians. Its offices (just a short walk from Cahuzac’s old Budget Ministry) were broken into, with the computers of those journalists working on the campaign-finance investigation stolen. Fabrice Arfi, 31, who led that investigation, as well as the one into Cahuzac’s tax evasion, was subject to a death threat during Sarkozy’s presidency. “We are the little boat against the big ocean liners,” Arfi wrote in a first-person account of his extraordinary journalistic career over the past few years in the French left-leaning paper Libération. “Between the surveillances, the break-ins and the death threats, it has created a spirit of camaraderie” at Mediapart, he wrote.

(MORE: Sarkozy’s Battle With France’s Judiciary Leads to Death Threats)

The website was started in 2008 by Mauduit and Edwy Plenel, his colleague from Le Monde, France’s most respected daily paper, who believed that the media was too closely intertwined with political interests, and that they could no longer do independent journalism. From the start, they decided not to post advertisements, but instead to earn money only through yearly subscriptions, which now cost €90 ($120).

At the time, their business model seemed unworkable. “Five years ago nobody believed in our project,” Plenel, who’s also Mediapart president, said on Friday. Plenel said when he left Le Monde in 2008, he was determined to show that people would be prepared to pay for high-value information — particularly since it offered French citizens revelations that the old-style newspapers shied away from. “They all said it could not work.”

To the surprise of many, subscriptions steadily increased as readers sought out investigative probes that were missing from France’s established newspapers — they now have some 62,000 subscribers. Last year Mediapart, which employs about 30 journalists, made a profit of about $780,000, according to the founders.

Now, Plenel said, Mediapart might offer clues to journalists about how to reinvent the industry, at a time when many outlets are struggling to survive against free online sites. “We journalists have to defend the value of our work,” Plenel told TIME. “In the age of the digital revolution we have to prove the value of information to the public.”

Much like the Watergate scandal in the 1970s created an entire generation of investigative journalists in the U.S., the site also seems to have galvanized French papers into digging deeper into politicians’ lives and forcing newspapers to “walk back their remarks” about a story they had all but ignored, says Jean-Marie Charon, a media specialist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research. “This is going to force the traditional media to reinvigorate their investigative units,” Charon says. “Investigative reporting almost totally disappeared from the big media after the early 2000s.”